In the face of budget cuts, the loss of autonomy and other tough measures taken by central government, France is dealing with a wave of resignations by mayors and even municipal councillors, causing a crisis in local governance.
PARIS — “Our mayors are exhausted, physically and morally,” said Agnes le Brun, the Vice President of the French National Association of Mayors (AMF) on Tuesday, as the annual National Congress of Mayors opened in Paris amid a tense atmosphere.
“We are faced with our own powerlessness and we feel inaudible,” she added.
Since the 2014 municipal elections, the number of French mayors who have resigned has increased by 55 percent during the electoral cycle. So far 1,021 mayors have voluntarily resigned, according to data published by the Agence France-Presse (AFP) last summer.
Every week, more mayors are handing in the keys to their town hall and the surge in resignations is expected to continue. The French Interior Ministry has recorded 153 resignations over the first six months of the year.
Mayors are not the only local civil servants throwing in the towel. Thousands of municipal councillors, an elected office at local level, have resigned since 2014. The reasons for this exodus of French municipal staff are manifold.
One of the key pillars of President Emmanuel Macron’s electoral bid was the suppression of the housing tax. Its implementation hit municipalities hard: housing tax, a type of property imposition levied directly by the town hall, represented 34 percent of their tax revenues. The current government has also cut down the number of state-aided contracts, and intends to stick to such austerity measures in 2019. These state-subsidised contracts, which have been devised to promote employment, are particularly used by rural municipalities.
Last April, Macron said on national television that small municipalities “wouldn’t lose one cent” in terms of endowment - that they would be compensated by the French state for a potential loss of fiscal revenues. But le Brun said that declining budgets were a daily concern, and that compensations had not been received yet.
“Some months, I didn’t know how I would pay my staff,” said Philippe Rion, the former mayor of Castillon, a French Riviera village of 280 people. Rion added he had to “cut on everything,” including by “stopping celebrating national commemorations”.
A small town problem
There are 35,500 municipalities in France. More than 30,000 of them have less than 2,000 inhabitants, according to the French National Institute for Statistical and Economic Studies (Insee). The strains put on a small municipality can be explained by looking at relatively recent budgetary guidelines put forward by the successive French governments.
In the past, French municipal councils determined freely their mayor’s allowance. But since 2016, allowances are automatically set under a new law’s provisions. For a town of less than 500 inhabitants, the amount of the mayor’s monthly allowance is 658 euros - which roughly represents half of the minimum monthly wage in France.
The gathering of smaller municipalities into wider inter-municipal structures, instituted by the law of 2007 with the goal of creating a more rational organisation of France’s territories, is also a central component to many mayors’ feelings of powerlessness.
A 2015 law strengthened the mandate of regions and inter-municipalities, two wider territorial entities, at the expense of the municipalities’ authority. President Macron has accelerated that drive toward even more administrative efficiency.
But various elected representatives of small municipalities reported that their voices are not being taking into account anymore, which makes them feel increasingly isolated. Gilbert Parmentier, the former mayor of Aulneaux, a town of 120 inhabitants in the north-west of the country, has seen the border of the inter-communality widen from 13,000 inhabitants and 43 elected representatives to 29,000 inhabitants, and 78 elected representatives.
“It is very tough - it means never-ending meetings, and the small town mayors are often lampooned when they are addressing professional politicians,” said the former school-teacher, who has been participating in municipal councils for over 30 years.
“We are not deciding much anymore,” confessed Gustave Langlois, the mayor of the village of Arquenay since 1977. Faced with the declining power of the mayoral office and a corresponding loss of legitimacy, he decided not to run for reelection in the 2020 municipal elections.
Several resigning mayors also pointed to what they saw as mounting expectations from the voters for fast and efficient public services. “If a sidewalk is damaged, people expect it to be fixed the next day,” complained Claude Descamps, the former mayor of the town of Prayssac who resigned just over a year ago. “People say they want to sue you on a regular basis,” he said, adding he was “on the cusp of a burn-out”.
“The level of expectation is rising even more due to the deferral of national problems on the local level, bolstered by the disappearance of national public services,” according to sociologist Luc Rouban.
In rural municipalities, the town hall often is the only point of contact between the population and the French state, explained Rouban. The relationships between the citizens and the mayor are more personal, and he is expected to staunchly defend their interests.
“There are no limits anymore,” says Veronique Ley, the former mayor of Croutelle. “A man threatened me that he’ll come back to the town hall with a Kalashnikov. We hit rock-bottom.”
According to a recent Cevipof poll, French citizens’ confidence in their mayors has dropped nine points in a year.
The worrying developments
Soon after the surge of mayoral resignations was reported by Le Figaro, one of the most distributed daily newspapers, the office of the prime minister asked the prefects (or chief administrators of French counties) to comment on the situation.
The prime minister's office then compiled their opinions into a confidential report. “The proportion of municipalities that have known a change of elected official since the 2014 elections is far from being abnormally high,” it reads, according to reporters from Le Monde newspaper, who obtained a copy. But the report did not touch upon voluntary resignations. It rather covered all the different reasons cited by resigning mayors — ranging from failing health and intense work pressure to the fusion of two municipalities.
Around half of the mayoral mandate terminations since 2014 are linked to involuntary causes. The other half corresponds to the number of voluntary departures, and the prefects argue that such resignations are almost invariably motivated by professional or family reasons. “The number of mayors whose resignations would have been caused by a weariness or the heaviness of the workload actually appears to be extremely marginal,” says the report.
An Alpes-de-Haute-Provence county administrator reported: “The number of mayors who have resigned for reasons linked to the evolution of their function or to the diminution of endowments, an information which was largely reported in the media, do not seem to be more important than during last mandate.”
The prefects, however, drew the prime minister’s attention due to two “worrying” developments. Firstly, the “haemorrhaging” of resignations among municipal councillors, “much less visible than that of the mayors’.” In some regions, it reaches a rate close to 10 percent. The prefects also worry that a “vocational crisis” could mean a shortage of candidates during the next municipal elections.
Amidst the uneasiness of local officials the French government will soon publish its budget for 2019, and the amount of the local endowments is likely to come under the intense scrutiny of mayors, who still have to hold on for two more years before the next municipal elections.